Friday, 31 January 2014

Do the Pagan Gods Still Linger?

The Celtic god Maponos, or as he appears in the later language ‘Mabon’, was the son of the Divine Mother and much honoured in Britain and Gaul during the Roman period. Beresford-Ellis (1992, p. 150) notes that the Romans equated him with their solar god Apollo for he was gifted at music. However he was also bright, a point to which we will return later. In medieval Welsh literature he is known as Mabon fab Modron, which equates to the Gaulish (and earlier British) Maponos son of Matrona. Mabon appears in the story Culhwch and Olwen. (Jones and Jones, 1949/1982) where he is a companion of King Arthur. In this story that Mabon has been taken from his mother three days after his birth and imprisoned by persons unknown. In the story the heroes have to find where Mabon is and they go asking the oldest and wisest animals until the Salmon of Llyn Llyw tells them that he travels up the Severn to Gloucester on every tide and hears the wailing of Mabon from his prison there. Needless to say Arthur frees him without too much trouble. It is thought that this imprisonment below Gloucester represents the Celtic underworld (Annwfn) and because of his time there, Mabon remains forever young (this idea is found in much Celtic mythology, compare the Irish story of Oisín).

Mabon (aka Maponos) was venerated all over Britain and Gaul.He was invoked also in Gaul and there is a sacred spring to Mabon near Savigny on the Rhone. A magical inscription from Chamalieres written in Gaulish invokes Maponos and the gods of the underworld to torment and torture the writer’s enemies (Lambert, 2003). Maponos’ cult was particularly strong in the area which today forms the Anglo-Scottish border. A striking carving found at Corbridge in Northumberland seems to represent him (Laing and Laing, 1992, p. 130). Higham and Jones (1985) note several  Romano-British dedications to Maponos in what is today Cumbria and Northumberland. On one of these at Ribchester, Maponos is again associated with Apollo (Ross, 1992, p. 276). Ross says that Maponos’ name is invoked five times on surviving monuments, all in Cumbria, Northumberland and Lancashire. On four of these he is equated with the Roman god of light Apollo.

To the north of the Roman Wall in Dumfriesshire lies Lochmaben. Because of the lake there it would be tempting to take this name as containing a Scottish ‘loch’ but Roman sources show that the name was originally Locus Maponi – a cult site or shrine to Mabon. Some miles to the south at the head of the Solway Firth lies the Clochmabenstane. This is a prehistoric megalith. The name contains the Gaelic ‘cloch’ meaning a stone, and the Scots, stane, meaning the same. The middle element is the name Mabon. This stone was used as a place of truce and parley during the long centuries of warfare between England and Scotland and Ross thinks (1992, p. 465) that it was always a sacred stone to the god Mabon.

One other significant place-name in this northern area is probably Mabbin Crag near Kendal. This high spot was probably also once dedicated to Mabon.

Not much is known about Mabon’s legend. But in summary, he was born to a divine mother. He was snatched from her when only three days old and imprisoned in the Underworld. Because of this he remains forever young. He is talented at music, was equated with the solar god Apollo by the Romans, and from Welsh sources, was a famous hunter.

And it would seem that he is long forgotten. But is that so? If the god was a figment of the imagination of our Celtic ancestors, then we would expect him to vanish when they converted to Christianity. However, there are some strange stories in this Border area which seem to me to be very reminiscent of this bright youth and which up to now have not been associated with him.

Corby Castle (privately owned with no access to the public) near Carlisle is famously haunted by the Radiant Boy. Corby Castle has been owned by the Howard family since 1611. This ‘Radiant Boy' is said to appear from nowhere within the castle surrounded by a golden light. He smiles gently to those who see him and is not threatening at all. However, according to legend, those who see him are destined to achieve great power but unfortunately come to a violent end.

A number of the Howards have seen the Radiant Boy. One, later Lord Castlereagh, became Foreign Secretary of Great Britain in the great days of Empire, then in 1822, cut his throat when the balance of his mind was disturbed. A local clergyman from Greystoke also saw the Radiant Boy in 1803. He was lying awake in the dark next to his wife when he saw a glimmer in the room which increased to a bright flame. He thought that something had caught fire, but to his amazement he beheld a beautiful boy, clothed in white with golden hair. He had a mild and benevolent expression, stayed for a while and then glided towards the fireplace and disappeared through the wall.

The clergyman lived to be an old man, though not particularly famous, and died in his bed.

A more recent sight of the Radiant Boy was in 1965 when a local postman was cycling to work a while before dawn on a dark winter morning. He looked up at Corby Castle from the road and saw a golden light around the battlements. At first he thought it was the sun rising, but it was too early and besides the castle was to the west of him. He was rather puzzled so he got off his bike and stopped for a while to look. Then he saw the Radiant Boy above the battlements. after that the postman disappears from history and probably lived to a ripe old age.

Was this Maponos?

A similar story comes from Chillingham Castle in Northumberland at the eastern end of the Border. Chillingham has lots of ghosts but the most famous is the Blue (or radiant) Boy. Who is seen in what is now called the Pink Room. Those who sleep there have noted the cries and moans of a child in pain and fear. The noises always came from a spot near a passage cut through the ten feet thick wall into the adjoining tower, and as the blood-curdling cries died slowly away a bright halo of light began to form close to the old four-poster bed. Anyone sleeping there saw the figure of a young boy dressed in blue gently approaching - always surrounded by light. It was in this wall, during the 1920's, that the bones of a young boy, and some fragments of a blue dress, were discovered. It was found alongside the skeleton of a man where the fireplace now is, close to a trap door that opened to the stone arches of the vaults below. To this day people sleeping in this room claim to be awakened by strange blue flashes in the middle of the night. This isn't an electrical fault because there are no electrics of any kind in the wall where the flashes were seen.

Again, is this glowing youth Maponos?

These two ghost stories come from an area where Maponos’ cult was celebrated. The stories of a gentle boy surrounded in light seems to coincide with the bright divine youth. But if these stories do represent Maponos, how could that be?

It seems that there are two possibilities. Firstly that folk memories of Maponos lingered and even though his divine origin was forgotten local people still told stories of a bright youth. Those claiming to have seen him either half remembered these and attributed some perfectly natural phenomenon to a spirit youth, or they simply made the stories up for their own entertainment.

Of course the second alternative is that the god Maponos was real, and lingers still in these remote northern places.


P. Beresford-Ellis (1992) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.  London: Constable & Co.

N. Higham, and B. Jones. (1985). The Carvetii.  Stroud: Alan Sutton

G. Jones, and T. Jones. (1949/1982). The Mabinogion. Amsterdam: Dragon’s Dream.

L. Laing, and J. Laing, J. (1992). The Art of the Celts.  London: Thames & Hudson

P Y Lambert. (2003). La Langue Gauloise. Paris: Editions Errance

A. Ross. (1992). Pagan Celtic Britain. 2nd edn. London: Constable.

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